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Author Topic: Fantasy-esque Prison...
Member # 8405

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Hey folks.

One of my problems with a story is that major plot advances take place in a prison (Or dungeon, if that seems more fantasy-esque). If the character is stuck in place, how do I go about adding 'movement' to the novel?

Something I suppose I should note: The story does not take place entirely in the dungeon, but the dungeon is a good couple of chapters.

Now, I'm not dead-set on this dungeon being completely dungeon-esque, so would things like a window that allows for sun/moonlight to get in, add a sense of 'timeflow' to the story?

What other techniques could I use? Oh -- And does anyone have any suggested reading for some techniques in prisonlike environments? Preferably ones that aren't too 'difficult' to read, as my limited attention-span requires somewhat less flowery prose than most hardcore literature.

Hopefully this makes sense.

Thanks a bunch.


[This message has been edited by Gan (edited June 23, 2010).]

[This message has been edited by Gan (edited June 23, 2010).]

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Member # 8368

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Depends on where your prison or dungeon is. In some cases, I could certainly see a small window, high up (sort of like a basement window). Maybe just enough to give a little light. The movement of the sunlight across the cell might be a way for the prisoner to tell time. Maybe he has to stand on something (a bucket? is there a cot?) to look out.

If he's not chained up he could pace. Does his captor visit him to interrogate him? Torture him? Taunt him?

But not all action has to be physical action. There could be a lot going on emotionally and mentally for this character.

That's assuming the prisoner is male. There's a whole other range of fears that could be played upon for a female prisoner.

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Pyre Dynasty
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First of all don't add things to your story just because you think they are expected. (I call this the tacked-on dragon phenomena.) Add them because they make sense for your milieu, so if a jail set up works better than a dungeon go for it. (This also goes with my theory that you don't need D or D to make a good fantasy story. Sorry I'm having a bit of fun.) Too many fantasy stories get dragged down by tropes added because writers think they are expected. (This doesn't mean that you can't add necessary tropes.)

Well, torture might add a bit of action to it. A psychotic cell-mate. A guard with a strange reaction to the situation. (Perhaps he is incredibly friendly and thinks of the place as a five star hotel.) You could have scenes of people on the outside trying to break him out. (Unsuccessfully and comically, if you aren't going for comedy you can do it a different way.) Cut it with scenes of the people who imprisoned the character. Prison riots are always fun. There is sure to be an interesting power structure with everyone involved. Heck you could write a whole book about a prison. (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile.)

Ask yourself what kind of experience do the people want their prisoners to have.

I don't have a resource for it but I think if you google Tower of London and Bastille, you'll get a wealth of info on medieval prisons.

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Member # 8857

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There is the Napoleonic sort of prison where a prisoner could offer their parole, or word of honor, that they would not try to escape. In exchange they were given a good bit of freedom within the prison itself. This was for the officers, not the enlisted men. If honor plays a strong part in your society this would be an option.

This is also an opportunity to grow your character. How do they deal with confinement? Are they scratching a count of the passing days into the cell wall? Perhaps they use how often they are fed as a clue to the passage of time?

Prisoners in real world jails develop elaborate means of communicating with each other- codes tapped out on walls, hand signals across hallways, etc. There can be a lot going on inside the prison.

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Member # 8501

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Give him a buddy or a rat to talk to. Give him something to do like repair his bed or clean up the prison, finding something interesting.
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Member # 7664

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Recommended reading for prison sequence: Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber has the hero Corwin spending a good few years in prison at the hands of his brother near the beginning of the saga, before escaping... And its got sort of a "high" or "fantastical" fantasy setting too.
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Member # 7974

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What other techniques could I use?

Alternate between the present and the past. Part-way through the novel, the character learns, realizes, or considers how he's been bewitched to relive the experiences that brought him to prison. The punishment would be a Think About What You've Done sort.

To show the progression of time, you could use the progression of the guards (some transfer, retire, or die while others come in); the regular re-appearance of an animal, ghost, or secret visitor; or natural changes to the environment (something erodes, rusts, or grows).

Base the character's activities off of his personality and previous experiences. A normal guy might sit around until his mind goes numb, but:
~ an unusually creative sort might make tools, carve messages and images in the walls or floor, make up songs, or tell stories to an imaginary audience;
~ a particularly dedicated soldier might practice fighting techniques and daydream about how he'd respond in specific battle scenarios;
~ a secretively budding mage might develop his magic from scratch;
~ a scientific sort might study the flora and fauna that lives with him by moving plants (algae, fungus, a stubborn tree, etc.) to different parts of a cell to see how they'll or interfering with the roach society (though I'm not sure how you'd make this activity relevant later in the story); and
~ a leader might try to help the other inmates with their issues and then organize them into a team that will break out together.

[This message has been edited by aspirit (edited June 24, 2010).]

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Member # 7760

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Someone has got to feed him. Even without windows, you can mark the passage of time with the delivery of food. And if you make the person delivering the food a woman, then you could develop a whole relationship with her. Maybe the prisoner makes it his personal mission to make the Woman trust him. Maybe to break him out, maybe to prove his innocence, maybe just because he is bored.

Don't forget hunger.

Anyway, good luck.

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Member # 8405

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Thank you everybody. These are all fantastic ideas.

I'm curious if the following situation is probable:

The world my story is taking place in is, I suppose, dark fantasy. I'm trying to adhere to some of the actual facts of the middle ages; Serfs and peasants, the feudal system, etc. High fantasy doesn't interest me too much.

My understanding is that during the middle ages, most people weren't jailed, but often physically hurt in a manner that reflected the crime. (Thief gets his hand cut off, etc). Of course, this obviously wasn't the case in all cultures.

The characters in this particular prison are somewhat infamous. The idea is that the Lord keeps them stuffed away, guarded by only his most trusted, and when morale among the people or soldiers is low he brings one out for execution.

Another idea I've been playing with, which is definitely a bit more torturous: The main character measures time by the screams of a woman being raped.

Is this too much? I almost feel gross for coming up with something so depraved. Yuck.

[This message has been edited by Gan (edited June 24, 2010).]

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Member # 9133

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Another possibilty to show a lengthier passage of time would be seasonal discomfort. ie baking hot in summer, stagnant air, fetid straw, spoiled food, flies, prisoner sick and faint as a result. Freezing cold in winter, prisoner only has theadbare blanket for warmth, ice in water cup, must march in place all night to keep feet from freezing etc.
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Member # 2651

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Prisons certainly existed in medieval times, though their use varied quite a bit. People would only be kept alive and in prison, generally, if there was a good reason - the commonest probably being ransom (even kings could be imprisoned for ransom - part of the traditional Robin Hood myth relates to John's ostensibly raising taxes to pay for the release of Richard the Lionheart from imprisonment). In some places there were debtor's prisons, which were a useful source of tax revenue - the debtor would normally actually be charged for "room and board" in prison even while his/her family were trying to pay off the debt. IIRC, this was not uncommonly used against Jews in England. And most people who were scheduled to be executed would be held for some time, public executions having a long tradition of being public entertainment. There's also a long tradition of prisoners being used as forced labour so you may want to consider that as an option.

As noted above, imprisonment is an ideal time for character introspection. It can also reveal character if the prisoner has to deal with other inmates (and frankly, solitary confinement is expensive and generally impractical without good reason, much better to throw a whole bunch of prisoners in one cell).

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Member # 9072

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The main problem I have with the rape thing is that doesn't seem consistent.

I did have a similar problem with a chapter in my book (well 3 chapters). I decided my character needed some time to get over some issues, so I tossed him into a pit for a couple weeks, no light, people basically ignore him and they don't bother feeding him. I did cheat in that he has a sorta cell mate who gets him food (it is complicated). So, it is dark, just one other person to talk to (a man he kinda hates and hopes will die a horrible death) and no space to like walk around and do anything. It is a very internal chapter for him, though he does have someone to chat with at least. I focus a lot on touch (the smell is fairly consistent and unpleasant, sight is gone, taste pretty minimal since no food, but when he does get a few bights, we hear lots about it, hearing is discussed, but generally he strains to hear human sounds but the pit is too deep for that). The negative to this is that I am pretty sure that since touch and breathing and all that is so focused on, I think some people might read some homoerotic subtext into it (with the other cellmate). Which actually, I am cool with the idea of them amusing themselves, as long as it is off screen. My story currently is sex free and I want to keep it that way.

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Member # 8405

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As for the consistency of the rape: I was thinking of having one of the guards be somewhat OCD, with a few traits of schizophrenia and whatnot. He would have a schedule set to be almost the same every day; and whenever he doesn't show up at the right times, it can be a source of suspense.

There are only three guards keeping these people in; the Lord can't have too many troops knowing about them or else word would get out about his 'political prisoners' and they'd be worth a lot less. Thusly, he trusts only his three best men to keep watch.

I like the idea of people being used in jails as ransom. That's definitely the kind of darker world I'm going for. I'll have to take a look and see if that type of situation fits any of my characters...

[This message has been edited by Gan (edited June 24, 2010).]

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